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In Europe, Corolla is Still Toyota’s Bread and Butter

Why Toyota isn’t rushing into EVs, and other insights from the R&D chief.

GENEVA, Switzerland—Toyota unveiled the GT4 concept version of its new Supra sports car at the big international show here, though for the rank and file bank tellers and watchmakers and chocolate shop clerks attending the public show this week, extension of the Corolla line probably is more pertinent. There's a new Toyota GR Sport version of the Corolla hatchback previously known here as the Auris, and a Corolla Trek Touring Sports Hybrid named for the Waterloo, Wisconsin-based bicycle brand.

The new Toyota Corolla Trek Touring Sports Hybrid is the sort of wagon American enthusiasts crave, with a relatively subtle 0.8-inch hike in ride clearance and 17-inch wheels, Subaru-style crossover design elements like front and rear under-runs, dark-tinted rear side glass, foglamps, LED headlamps, a seven-inch multifunction center dash display, and two-tone fabric seats with matching wood trim. Toyota will provide this version as support vehicles for the Trek-Segafredo World Tour Men's and Women's Teams in European bike-racing events. On sale in Europe in August, it will come with either a 1.8-liter hybrid or a 2.0-liter "performance" hybrid powertrain. There's no all-wheel-drive available, just front-wheel-drive.

"All the Scandinavian countries and then maybe Switzerland, always Austria where you have the mountains … but the rest of Europe is not so strong on all-wheel-drive," Gerald Killman explained to a small group of North American auto journalists attending the Geneva motor show. "Especially if all-wheel-drive has a negative impact on fuel consumption and CO2. The European market is very sensitive to that.

Killman is Toyota Motor Europe's vice president of research & development, and he knows well that even the burgeoning sport/utility market is limited there by high fuel prices. He does not have much to say about the models we most wanted to talk about; the new Toyota Supra, nor any other sports cars in the automaker's lineup. Even though BMW led development of the Supra in conjunction with its own Z4, Toyota Motor Europe had no significant involvement.

He does have a lot to say about hybrids, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the latter of which is under development there at least as extensively as it is in a small pilot program, along with availability of the Toyota Mirai fuel-cell sedan, in California.

"We are not against electric," Killman said, responding to a question. "We are in favor of an intelligent use of batteries. We build today 1.5-million hybrids (for sale globally). We're at the complete upper end of battery production...

"If you calculate the number of electric mileage driven in the city by hybrids," he continued, "it's much higher than what the battery electric would be. So today when battery production is limited, it's much more sensible from a societal point of view to put [total battery production] into hybrids than battery electric vehicles. And for the normal customer who has a normal European salary, it's much more affordable."

Those hybrid Toyotas, Priuses and other models, continue to use nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of the de rigueur lithium-ion.

"They don't have cobalt in them, so they have clear advantages as well. And they have a very good lifetime, we know that with more than 13-million hybrids that we've sold globally there's good reason to continue them, while we also look into other technologies, for, let's say specifications where the packaging is more difficult."

Toyota and Lexus sold about 485,000 hybrids in Europe in 2018, Killman said. Total sales for Toyota Motor Europe was 752,700 last calendar year, according to the European market research firm, Jato. In the U.S., where the total market is about the same size as the European market, Toyota and Lexus sold about 2.5-times that, 2.47-million, in '18.

Toyota also delivered about 200 Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell cars in Europe last year, but Killman expects that to climb significantly in the next couple of years as the continent expands its refueling infrastructure. In California, Toyota is testing fuel-cell semi-truck transporters at its Long Beach facility receiving imported models. In Europe, Toyota is working with a mass transit bus manufacturer to test the same fuel cell stacks used in the U.S. experiment.

So Toyota Motor Europe looks likely to take the lead on hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles, as it leads the U.S. on expansion of the Corolla line. For the Toyota Corolla line, though, there remain limits on what we can and will share, based on different regulations and market requirements. For example, Europe gets that 2.0-liter performance hybrid powertrain for the Corolla, while North America gets just the 1.8-liter high fuel-efficiency hybrid, and a 2.0-liter gasoline four without the hybrid motor. While we certainly won't get any version of the Corolla Sport Touring, Trek edition or otherwise, there's no reason to yearn for the Corolla GR Sport hatchback—it's mostly a visual design upgrade, Killman said.